March 27, 1989 was the day Shalena and Calvin Smith went from being best friends to embarking on a relationship. The couple made their big reveal at their 10th grade high school dance. “I’ve loved Shalena since then and I always pictured her being my wife,” shares Calvin. The high school sweethearts dated for 10 years and have now been married for 14, with two daughters: 12-year-old Callie and 10-year-old Tyler. “Everyone told us how we were too young to be in love and what did we know about love,” recalls Shalena. “But look at us now.”
For the Smiths, defeating odds stacked against young love standing the test of time has everything to do with their loyalty and trust in each other, and a shared rocky childhood that would forever tie them to one another. Shalena grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley with her mother and stepfather, whose relationship she describes as “dysfunctional.” (It’s since developed into a healthy union.) Calvin didn’t fare much better in his family situation in South Central Los Angeles. He lived in a foster home since he was 6 months old, and suffered physical and mental abuse.
“We were both very popular in school, but no one knew the pain we were going through at home,” reveals Shalena, who says they confided in each other about their struggles. “Our challenges and pain is what brought us together. We were able to be honest and support each other with no judgment.”
“What attracted me to Shalena, other than how beautiful she was, is how she was a great friend who I could trust. She kept my secrets about what was going on with me at home,” adds Calvin.
While they always daydreamed about building a brighter future with one another, circumstances would force them to move in together prior to taking their vows. The 1994 Northridge earthquake displaced Shalena’s family. That’s when she moved in with Calvin, who after high school graduation was living alone following his foster mother’s stroke.
“We thought living together before marriage was wrong. We were playing house, and how long could that last?” asks Shalena. After a year, the two split up, but were still very much in each other’s lives.
“I wanted her to date other people and experience life, so when we got married, she knew exactly what she wanted,” says Calvin. While Shalena was in college she dated other people, but she never stopped loving Calvin. “The people we were dating were a waste of time,” says Shalena. After two years of being apart, the two got back together, and shortly after, Calvin proposed.
Shalena was in Las Vegas for a girl’s weekend when Calvin made a surprise trip to pop the question (but not before getting her mother and stepfather’s blessing). With the help of Shalena’s girlfriend, Calvin surprised Shalena at VooDoo nightclub.
“She was a little tipsy,” says Calvin before Shalena interjects.
“I was drunk because my girlfriend kept getting me drinks while she would step away to coordinate with Calvin,” she says.
“She was in shock to see me there. I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me,” Calvin continues.
“I was not expecting it at all even though we had talked about getting married. People around us were tearing up, and I was really overwhelmed by it all,” Shalena says.
“I never knew what marriage or family was, because I never had that growing up,” says Calvin. “I did not believe in it until I met her. She is determined, persistent, a great mother. She plays a huge part in who I am today. I knew that if I ever did get married, that woman would have to know me inside and out and still accept me as I am. And that’s Shalena.”
“He is so compassionate and has the biggest heart. He is one of the few genuine people I know,” says Shalena.
During their engagement, Shalena—who once worked in sales at the upscale celebrity baby furniture boutique Bellini—was in the midst of moving to Palo Alto to open a Bellini store. Calvin quit his job in sales to help her with her new endeavor. As if opening a new store and planning a wedding wasn’t enough on their plate, a then 24-year-old Shalena and 26-year-old Calvin took on the roles of new parents when they adopted Calvin’s nephew.
“It was stressful but that moment really defines us,” says Shalena, who later sold the store and launched her very own successful company, GaGa Designs—which specializes in designing nurseries, children rooms and planning baby events for A-list stars such as Sean Combs and Mariah Carey. “During hard times, we’ve always pulled it together as a team.”
“The world tried to tell us we couldn’t be together, that Shalena couldn’t start her own business and that I couldn’t break the cycle of violence and abuse in my family. We did all of that,” says Calvin. No challenge, no matter how big or small, is greater than their love.
When Calvin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001 (as Shalena was pregnant with their first child), the right medication and counseling helped the couple manage Calvin’s manic highs and lows. “I never want people to see our family and think how perfect we are. It’s thanks to putting Christ first and our love for each other that we have gotten through it all,” says Shalena.
They use Shalena’s grandparents, who’ve been married for 56 years, as an example of a thriving relationship. “Growing up, they had these plaques on their wall that said, ‘Love is a decision.’ I didn’t understand what that meant until I got married,” says Shalena, who also credits her mother and stepfather’s perseverance through the hard times as a model to follow. “Our marriage has been protected by God.”
“I could only be with somebody that loves me at my worse when I have nothing to offer her. I would never want to give up on those teenagers who fell in love and needed each other through their pain,” says Calvin, who—following the murder of his sister (his nephew’s mother) at the hands of her boyfriend—is now working to help foster and low-income children earn an education as a human resource payroll coordinator for Early Headstart Education at the University of Southern California. “Our family is everything we ever dreamed of.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.